Blogs: Paul Pillar

Trump Goes All In With the Settlers

Educating Trump with Intelligence: Questions are as Important as Answers

Heartstrings and Aleppo

Paul Pillar

The oversimplification and emotion that have come to characterize the dominant narrative about Aleppo are generating serious misunderstanding about that situation and about the wider war in Syria, and are laying groundwork for policy misdirection about other civil wars in the future.  There have been multiple parties in the fight at Aleppo, and brutality and infliction of wholesale suffering on civilians have not been limited to any one side.  Rebel forces in eastern Aleppo, which have included the local Al Qaeda affiliate, have been guilty of execution-style killings of civilians in the area under their control as well as indiscriminate shelling of the portion of the city that had always been under government control.  Moreover, the agonies of siege warfare have not been in only one direction.  The reported reason that one agreement, arranged by Russia and Turkey, for a cease-fire and evacuation was not immediately implemented was that Iran insisted that the same sort of arrangements be made for the residents of two Shia-inhabited villages besieged by rebels.  And why shouldn’t such succor be extended to civilians of all faiths, rather than just to those on one side of a sectarian divide?

The simplistic, black-and-white treatment of a clash such as the battle for Aleppo brings about a loss of context and perspective, such as exhibited by the pro-intervention James Jeffrey, who accuses the Obama administration and anyone else not willing to dive into the Syrian civil war of over-reacting to the experience with Iraq.  Intervening in the Syrian war, Jeffrey says, would be “containing a threat to the global system,” akin to Berlin, Korea, Kuwait, and the Cuban missile crisis.  Iraq and “arguably Vietnam” were something different: efforts to “expand that system.”  But how can he say that when the Assad regime, under first the father and then the son, has been in power for 46 years, as well as having its alliances with Moscow and Tehran for most of that time?  The war against Assad is all about regime change, just as much as in Iraq, and can hardly be called “containing” rather than ”expanding” anything global.

Also encouraged by the moralistic absolutism applied to Aleppo and the Syrian civil war as a whole is misconception about U.S. policy options available now and earlier, and what any such options could have or would have brought about.  The Washington Post editorial page, which has tirelessly beaten a drum about Syria, is an example.  Its latest take on the subject is as moralistically vituperative as anyone else’s, speaking of “a meltdown of the West’s moral and political will—and in particular, a collapse of U.S. leadership.”  As usual, there is an absence not only of attention to costs and risks to the United States but also of any convincing analysis that further escalation of the war by outside players would bring Syria any closer to a semblance of peace and stability, rather than moving it farther away. The editorial writers seem to be saying that this is all a matter of whether the Assad regime is up or down, and pushing it down is the only way to go.

What the Post editorialists and many others argue is that if only more had been done earlier, the options and the results would have been better.  This is a cheap and easy argument to make for anyone beating the drum for intervention (and perhaps also wanting to beat President Obama with a stick), without having to come up with a workable alternative.  There is little or nothing in the history of this war, the state of Syrian political culture, or previous efforts to recruit and train opposition forces to suggest that the mirage of a “moderate” element strong and cohesive enough to topple Assad and form the basis of a stable follow-on regime was ever anything but a mirage.  Although it is true that some movement toward radical groups has been partly a matter of those groups being where guns and salaries were, the much bigger radicalizing element, in Syria as in other places with internal warfare, has been the war itself, engagement in which is an inherently immoderate act. 

We owe President Obama a debt of gratitude for bearing the burden of formulating and implementing policies that do reflect adequate attention to costs and risks to the United States and to what realistically would make things no worse for Syria.  The rest of us get to moralize and express anguish over the suffering people of Aleppo; the president has to go beyond moralizing, and in so doing he has to put up with being mentioned in the same paragraphs as Auschwitz.

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Partisan Tribalism and Attitudes Toward Russia

Paul Pillar

The oversimplification and emotion that have come to characterize the dominant narrative about Aleppo are generating serious misunderstanding about that situation and about the wider war in Syria, and are laying groundwork for policy misdirection about other civil wars in the future.  There have been multiple parties in the fight at Aleppo, and brutality and infliction of wholesale suffering on civilians have not been limited to any one side.  Rebel forces in eastern Aleppo, which have included the local Al Qaeda affiliate, have been guilty of execution-style killings of civilians in the area under their control as well as indiscriminate shelling of the portion of the city that had always been under government control.  Moreover, the agonies of siege warfare have not been in only one direction.  The reported reason that one agreement, arranged by Russia and Turkey, for a cease-fire and evacuation was not immediately implemented was that Iran insisted that the same sort of arrangements be made for the residents of two Shia-inhabited villages besieged by rebels.  And why shouldn’t such succor be extended to civilians of all faiths, rather than just to those on one side of a sectarian divide?

The simplistic, black-and-white treatment of a clash such as the battle for Aleppo brings about a loss of context and perspective, such as exhibited by the pro-intervention James Jeffrey, who accuses the Obama administration and anyone else not willing to dive into the Syrian civil war of over-reacting to the experience with Iraq.  Intervening in the Syrian war, Jeffrey says, would be “containing a threat to the global system,” akin to Berlin, Korea, Kuwait, and the Cuban missile crisis.  Iraq and “arguably Vietnam” were something different: efforts to “expand that system.”  But how can he say that when the Assad regime, under first the father and then the son, has been in power for 46 years, as well as having its alliances with Moscow and Tehran for most of that time?  The war against Assad is all about regime change, just as much as in Iraq, and can hardly be called “containing” rather than ”expanding” anything global.

Also encouraged by the moralistic absolutism applied to Aleppo and the Syrian civil war as a whole is misconception about U.S. policy options available now and earlier, and what any such options could have or would have brought about.  The Washington Post editorial page, which has tirelessly beaten a drum about Syria, is an example.  Its latest take on the subject is as moralistically vituperative as anyone else’s, speaking of “a meltdown of the West’s moral and political will—and in particular, a collapse of U.S. leadership.”  As usual, there is an absence not only of attention to costs and risks to the United States but also of any convincing analysis that further escalation of the war by outside players would bring Syria any closer to a semblance of peace and stability, rather than moving it farther away. The editorial writers seem to be saying that this is all a matter of whether the Assad regime is up or down, and pushing it down is the only way to go.

What the Post editorialists and many others argue is that if only more had been done earlier, the options and the results would have been better.  This is a cheap and easy argument to make for anyone beating the drum for intervention (and perhaps also wanting to beat President Obama with a stick), without having to come up with a workable alternative.  There is little or nothing in the history of this war, the state of Syrian political culture, or previous efforts to recruit and train opposition forces to suggest that the mirage of a “moderate” element strong and cohesive enough to topple Assad and form the basis of a stable follow-on regime was ever anything but a mirage.  Although it is true that some movement toward radical groups has been partly a matter of those groups being where guns and salaries were, the much bigger radicalizing element, in Syria as in other places with internal warfare, has been the war itself, engagement in which is an inherently immoderate act. 

We owe President Obama a debt of gratitude for bearing the burden of formulating and implementing policies that do reflect adequate attention to costs and risks to the United States and to what realistically would make things no worse for Syria.  The rest of us get to moralize and express anguish over the suffering people of Aleppo; the president has to go beyond moralizing, and in so doing he has to put up with being mentioned in the same paragraphs as Auschwitz.

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Why Intelligence Briefings Matter

Paul Pillar

The oversimplification and emotion that have come to characterize the dominant narrative about Aleppo are generating serious misunderstanding about that situation and about the wider war in Syria, and are laying groundwork for policy misdirection about other civil wars in the future.  There have been multiple parties in the fight at Aleppo, and brutality and infliction of wholesale suffering on civilians have not been limited to any one side.  Rebel forces in eastern Aleppo, which have included the local Al Qaeda affiliate, have been guilty of execution-style killings of civilians in the area under their control as well as indiscriminate shelling of the portion of the city that had always been under government control.  Moreover, the agonies of siege warfare have not been in only one direction.  The reported reason that one agreement, arranged by Russia and Turkey, for a cease-fire and evacuation was not immediately implemented was that Iran insisted that the same sort of arrangements be made for the residents of two Shia-inhabited villages besieged by rebels.  And why shouldn’t such succor be extended to civilians of all faiths, rather than just to those on one side of a sectarian divide?

The simplistic, black-and-white treatment of a clash such as the battle for Aleppo brings about a loss of context and perspective, such as exhibited by the pro-intervention James Jeffrey, who accuses the Obama administration and anyone else not willing to dive into the Syrian civil war of over-reacting to the experience with Iraq.  Intervening in the Syrian war, Jeffrey says, would be “containing a threat to the global system,” akin to Berlin, Korea, Kuwait, and the Cuban missile crisis.  Iraq and “arguably Vietnam” were something different: efforts to “expand that system.”  But how can he say that when the Assad regime, under first the father and then the son, has been in power for 46 years, as well as having its alliances with Moscow and Tehran for most of that time?  The war against Assad is all about regime change, just as much as in Iraq, and can hardly be called “containing” rather than ”expanding” anything global.

Also encouraged by the moralistic absolutism applied to Aleppo and the Syrian civil war as a whole is misconception about U.S. policy options available now and earlier, and what any such options could have or would have brought about.  The Washington Post editorial page, which has tirelessly beaten a drum about Syria, is an example.  Its latest take on the subject is as moralistically vituperative as anyone else’s, speaking of “a meltdown of the West’s moral and political will—and in particular, a collapse of U.S. leadership.”  As usual, there is an absence not only of attention to costs and risks to the United States but also of any convincing analysis that further escalation of the war by outside players would bring Syria any closer to a semblance of peace and stability, rather than moving it farther away. The editorial writers seem to be saying that this is all a matter of whether the Assad regime is up or down, and pushing it down is the only way to go.

What the Post editorialists and many others argue is that if only more had been done earlier, the options and the results would have been better.  This is a cheap and easy argument to make for anyone beating the drum for intervention (and perhaps also wanting to beat President Obama with a stick), without having to come up with a workable alternative.  There is little or nothing in the history of this war, the state of Syrian political culture, or previous efforts to recruit and train opposition forces to suggest that the mirage of a “moderate” element strong and cohesive enough to topple Assad and form the basis of a stable follow-on regime was ever anything but a mirage.  Although it is true that some movement toward radical groups has been partly a matter of those groups being where guns and salaries were, the much bigger radicalizing element, in Syria as in other places with internal warfare, has been the war itself, engagement in which is an inherently immoderate act. 

We owe President Obama a debt of gratitude for bearing the burden of formulating and implementing policies that do reflect adequate attention to costs and risks to the United States and to what realistically would make things no worse for Syria.  The rest of us get to moralize and express anguish over the suffering people of Aleppo; the president has to go beyond moralizing, and in so doing he has to put up with being mentioned in the same paragraphs as Auschwitz.

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